Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Being lazy is not a virtue

A German writer, Patrick Spaet, is convinced that hard work is a fetish and we should be more open to financing the lives of everyone else. In part because modern technology replaces a lot of physical labor and also because rewarding people who work is a mistake. For example, Spaet writes:

This situation is all the more schizophrenic in that we take every opportunity every day to escape toil and work: who voluntarily uses a washboard, if he has a washing machine? Who copies out a text by hand, if he can use a photocopier instead? And who mentally calculates the miserable columns of figures on his tax return, if he has a calculator? We are bone idle, and yet we glorify work.

But his entire premise suffers rests on the fatal assumption that jobs exist to keep people busy, something I have pilloried here for years. No, the point of work is to be productive, and people who are capable of being productive but opt not to are looked down for leeching off the labors of others.

That's not just right wing resentment of people on the social safety net, but also left-wing hatred of rich kids and workers in the finance industry, who they do not see as making any real contribution. These resentments have flaws - there really are people on the social safety net who are unable to work, and finance does have an important role in society that requires long hours of office work - but even with those flaws the resenters have a fair point in principle.

Spaet is right that technology makes people more productive, but his flaw is in thinking that it would be acceptable to compensate for technological advances by reducing labor until productivity breaks even with the past. That would leave several billion people in avoidable poverty so that nose-crinkling anti-capitalists like himself can get more leisure time. It's easy to look down on growth when you're not poor.

People want a higher standard of living, including people who already live comfortably. I can respect someone wanting to work less and live a simpler lifestyle, such as a European household compared to an American one, but that's different from Spaet's sci-fi utopian fantasy where work is entirely optional. We all benefit from productivity, not mindless toil, and the distinction is important.

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